One of the questions that I am asked the most from friends around the world is “but how can you live in the UAE, in that type of culture, when you don’t believe or even agree with their customs and traditions”. I have to say that I find this train of thought a little confusing – what is it exactly that I don’t believe in? Aside from the fact that I am not a Muslim of course. But since when did a person have to subscribe to a country’s given religion to live there? Perhaps it’s a question of values? Although, I do believe that most fundamentally decent people wherever they are geographically located tend to share similar values, regardless of religion. As far as religion is concerned, isn’t every religion preaching basically the same set of values – in the main, isn’t it really the rituals and ceremonies that differ? Anyway, I digress. There are, of course, some cultural values in the UAE that differ fundamentally to my own but these don’t tend to noticeably impact my everyday life (in fact sometimes they can even improve my everyday life!), so if they don’t particularly affect me why would I have a problem living amongst this culture? I don’t have to agree with all of the values of a culture to live somewhere, do I? Isn’t it just ok to accept and respect the people around me, whoever they might be and whatever they might believe as long as they are decent?
So what exactly is everyone getting at here? I think the point is that most of my friends and I have one thing in common – we’ve all been brought up in (so-called) free countries, where people – men and women alike can wear what they choose and there aren’t laws or cultural expectations or restrictions on what we can and can’t wear. But wait… is that really true? There may not be any laws in place to prohibit certain forms of dress deemed unacceptable, but there is a certain unspoken societal pressure to conform to an acceptable norm. Doesn’t the entire fashion industry spend billions upon billions promoting what we should all be wearing in order to look good, to fit in, to convey a certain image? Just because I may be legally allowed to walk down a London / New York / Sydney high street in a bikini in the middle of Winter if I so choose, doesn’t mean that I would… or should…! It strikes me as slightly bizarre that people get quite uptight about restrictions that exist that are never likely to affect their daily lives anyway. I suppose it comes down to the issue of choice. Being ‘free’ to have the choice makes all the difference… but does it really when we’re talking about choices that most sane people would never make anyway? Does it really make a difference if a restriction is in place by law or in place by what is deemed acceptable by society?
Getting back to Emirati society, well, it’s not necessarily that women aren’t allowed to wear what they like… The answer to the question of why they wear what they wear is a personal one, and often depends on their own preference, their personal religious beliefs and those of their family background. I am certainly not professing to be an expert on the subject of why local women dress the way they do, my point really is that to those who don’t know, or don’t have any knowledge or experience of the culture here is that it’s not about oppression or being told that they must act or dress a certain way. Every day here in the UAE you see local women dressed in varying ways – some fully covered up from head to toe, some covered from head to toe but with no facial veil, some with only a nod to the traditions and customs of the country with a modern styled open abaya (the long black robe) which gives the appearance of a gown or cloak and displays their outfit underneath. Some of the younger women even wear a fitted abaya when this was a garment originally intended to cover their form, some dress just as you or I might and so on. As in any culture, things change and traditions evolve with time.
There appears to be a great misunderstanding and mistrust of Muslims in the western media – articles have appeared all over the world in non Muslim countries discussing the idea that perhaps the niqab or other garments covering a woman’s face be restricted in some way or even banned. The thinking seems to be ‘when in Rome, do as the Romans do’… But as long as people are respectful of the laws of a country why should they be prevented from dressing differently? In my own culture, the British supposedly pride themselves on the core value of ‘personal freedom’ – freedom and acceptance of others provided no one is harmed. People are threatened by what they don’t understand. It’s a controversial issue, but does it really need to be? I am free to come and work and live in the UAE and not have to cover myself up. I can wear short-sleeved t-shirts and skirts (just not too short!) in public. There are also many exceptions to this in appropriate environments – hotel restaurants, nightclubs, beaches etc. It’s just about being appropriate in the right setting and being aware of cultural sensitivities. Yes, we are asked to dress and behave respectfully and to respect the culture but this is no hardship. This is no more than I would do in any country I visited or lived in. Dressing respectfully does not involve limiting my choices or my freedom, I dress just the same here as I would at home – at home I wouldn’t dress outrageously and flaunt my body with minimal clothing. But maybe that’s just me.
So, people ask me how I can be comfortable living in a country with so many restrictions… With so many limitations on my freedom… Well, my answer is to ask you to consider this: I am free to come to the UAE to live and not feel restricted or judged or have Islam forced upon me. I am free to live here (almost) exactly as I would back in the UK, the only real difference being that I have to exercise an amount of cultural understanding and respect. Aren’t there countless examples of citizens who could benefit from doing the same in the Western countries many of us call home?! Just keep an open mind and look at things from another perspective – Muslims around the world are constantly questioned and examined in the media for the way they choose to dress – aren’t these surprising attitudes from such supposedly open, tolerant, ‘free’ countries..? At the end of the day, all any of us are trying to do is live our lives, and live our lives in a way and place that provides the best opportunities and standards of living we can afford ourselves. Don’t we all basically just want the same thing when it really comes down to it, regardless of the intricacies or rituals involved in a culture?